On Things that Change
It was a little past midnight when a navy clockship burst through the clouds and wavered forwards. The beat of its clock engine sounded for minutes around.
Clockships could only fly thirty to forty minutes at a time, so the navy arranged a number of ships to be positioned along where the previous ship dropped. The effect was a dizzying work of transit in which all Tig could recall was the howl of deck workers and the brisk commands of Salamon as each ship connected.
They landed on an island once and upon the sea on four other occasions, each time hustled onto the ship without as much as a wayward glance at their surroundings.
Now upon the fifth ship, Tig huddled in the hall with Franco, Remy and Gemjo as winds whipped restlessly against the hull. The pirates occupied one wall while the soldier huddled alone by the other. The Professor had long since vanished into one of the many rooms present on the ship.
Inyande had been with them to, but only for the first two ships before she was destined for some ‘impenetrable’ prison.
The sound of metal jostling attracted Tig to Gemjo now playing with Carter. He saw looks of abject disgust directed at the girl from previous owner. Or at least what Tig imagined as that previous owner took to hiding her frowns behind Gemjo’s scarf.
“How’s my scarf? Reek of a dog smell?” taunted Gemjo, spinning Carter mockingly.
“Better than the sight of one.”
“Then cover your eyes with it, better yet toss it my way and I’ll do my best to spare myself from the glares of entitled nobility.”
Gemjo flashed her teeth.
Tig batted tired eyes. It had been that way for all of the boat rides. Both had what the other wanted, but neither would yield. Instead, they took to taunting each other without end. On the first ship, the soldiers had given them telling looks, on the second they had flatly warned them to stop, and on the third they had banished them from staying in the rooms, thus dejecting them to exile in the halls.
Only the quiet, seemingly distracted Professor had been granted his own chamber, accompanied by Salamon who insisted upon staying with him.
Tig found his curiosity on the subject flare up as the girls bickered.
“What’s happened to the Professor as of late?” he asked them.
Franco was the first to answer, “Do you mean his turned appearance? I too have thought on it, Tib. Though, truthfully, I take it has to do with his origins. His biological origins.”
“Which we know nothing of,” said Gemjo.
“Yes, we don’t,” Tig focussed on Remy, “but you knew him before. What is he?”
Remy hid behind Gemjo’s scarf and made muffled noises into it, “I cannot say.”
Gemjo pointed Carter at Remy, “Speak.”
“Fool,” chided Remy, “you’ve no bullets.”
Gemjo tis’ked and spun the gun, “Not that I care,” she muttered.
“Come now, Gem, you must be at least a tad bit curious,” said Franco. “One day he was as orange as a flame and the next he was white, a manifest of cream, a nimble cloud, a--”
“A rabbit?” finished Tig.
The Girl shrugged as she leaned back. “What strikes me more is his movements since he’s changed. He’s faster than me, Inyande to.”
“It happened gradually,” recalled Tig. “Ever since he had nothing to drink, he’s been changing.”
“So when he’s sober he’s a rabbit and when he’s not he’s some, well, drunk orange man?” surmised Franco.
“Alright you’ve lost me. Do you know what I think, Tiv, I think some witch doctor’s cast an awful spell on the lot of us and we’ve been seeing that illusion since. If turning into a rabbit isn’t strange enough, consider how he hasn’t touched the drink Oke gave him since we’ve left. It must be an illusion.”
“He’s right about that.” Tig blinked in her direction. Surprisingly, it was Gemjo who agreed with him, “Haven’t seen the drunk without a drink since I met him. Haven’t smelled it either.”
“Something’s different, something’s happened,” began Tig, lowering his head in contemplation.
“He wasn’t a rabbit,” said Remy suddenly.
Tig looked up to her, “Then?”
She confirmed it, “This is new.”
The ship rocked against a gust and Tig stumbled up.
“I’m going to ask him,” he decided.
Franco glanced up at him, “Right now?”
“Aye, before we land. I need to know.”
Tig left without another word. No one followed, no one passed him. In these, the afterhours of a night above cloud and sea, only those who were a part of the night crew worked the ship and did so scarcely. The halls were empty. Security lax.
His need came from guilt. A guilty pain knowing he had abandoned all he knew for a journey with a man he knew nothing of. And now, as that man changed abruptly and without warning, Tig found himself dreading what would come of it. When Verace shrank into the background with fireworks still bursting into sky, Tig could only consider how he’d finally done something—anything—to make amends for the crimes of his family. It was a happy leaving, a hopeful one.
Their recent departure, on the other hand, was marked by the frantic pleadings of Chireke as Inyande was whisked away and the promise of the masked prince on how he would meet them again in Al’Tof.
The wise Madam Kimbe left with the Prince to a similar promise and a question to Tig as to where Venezio found his poison. He could not answer. While he was a Trimbly, the secrets of his namesake remained just so.
After all, he had only known them since the incident.
The gas lamps that lit the darkwood walls sunk into the velvet carpet and glinted off the iron lines that stretched across his face. Another memory came to him as he passed the few rooms where sailors laughed and clanked glasses. That of fire, the day he first met the Trimblies. It was a day of betrayal he would never forget. Fire everywhere, smoke more so, and his father, the strongest man in the village, hesitant to fight. They cried for him even as the Trimblies cut them down. Some ran, never too far, while others retreated to the great Toklo in the hopes he might act. He didn’t. They had gone motionless, clutching to his leathers. Tig remembered the great arm blade that flicked red out, he remembered how he banged on his father’s side for him to act. And when the man finally listened, it was not to him.
They said he had forgotten, they said he was not himself, they said he had been lost years ago and only now they had found him. They were lies, thought Tig, but the man he knew as his father believed them unflinchingly. And suddenly, without so much a warning, his father changed. He turned and he struck and Tig’s happy family split apart in blood and ash. He remembered the silence. He recalled his body thrown over something that would not move, and the sound of his father’s hunting knife as it crunched the snow. People changed.
Like fireworks crackling across the sky, all it took was a spark before people revealed their true colors. Tig tensed as he thought that. Anu came to mind. People changed and not just into rabbits.
He had stopped before a door he suspected the Professor hid behind. The gas lamp had long gone out above it and the number 15 was sprawled just legibly into the midst of its wooden surface.
He studied the floor and confirmed what he saw from a distance. White hairs littered the red carpet as if whatever wandered in had been molting.
He wondered even as he pushed open the door if the Professor had changed once again. He saw something flicker on the other side and pushed the door fully.
The rabbit man was hunched over a round wooden table with a candle dying at its center. He had a bottle clutched in his hands, and his hat had shifted lazily to his side, revealing one large floppy ear.
“Tig,” came the voice painfully. He turned, and the boy breathed in horror as one the Professor’s goggle eye had turned into a very natural, very red eye, its black pupil deep and dilating.
“Look, Tig, before I drown in myself in this bottle’s succor, you should know something. Up there,” he pointed, “there’s these twelve divine beasts and I’m… well down here there’s twelve Hours and I happen to… Point is that day you jumped on that boat, I couldn’t be happier. You chose me. Me, of all turns.”
“You remember?” said Tig.
“’Course I remember! It was only weeks ago, mate.”
“Right,” laughed Tig, “Feels longer is all.”
The Professor spun the bottle it on its base as he continued, “You remind me of a friend I had long ago, and I think it best to offer you what I did him. So listen,” he said taking a breath. “Should you ever find yourself in terrible danger, and I mean really life threatening stuff, pray to the first Hour. But only if it’s absolutely bloody necessary.”
Tig remained fixated on that piercing red eye.
“Pray?” he quirked inquisitively.
“Yes, pray. Press your palms together and the like. Just be prudent about it. There are reasons for it, reasons I’m sure one day I’ll reveal but not now. Just trust me alright?”
The Professor blinked his mismatched eyes, “Just like that, mate? You trust me?”
“You saved my life.”
“Mate, everybody saves your life.”
Tig frowned to that, thinking gingerly back to Gemjo’s comment. “Not just on that isle,” added Tig. “I mean when you arrived on that pier and gave me the choice I never gave myself. You may be an unreliable drunk, but you’ve done more for me than I could I ever pay back. So yes I trust you. I…” Tig pressed his chin down as he considered the words. The Professor was an unreliable man, but he was no liar. They had indeed travelled into the horizon, seeking its never ending origin, and for all the ilses they’ve escaped and ships they’ve lost, the journey to the Mad Tinker promised a hundred more. He smiled at the thought. Perhaps there was only ever one reason for jumping that night in Verace. “I believe in you,” he said at last.
The Professor shook, his bottle lowered. He sniffed slightly as he tilted his head away.
“Professor?” asked Tig.
“Nothing mate, just... thank you. I needed that.” He wavered to the bottle. “I ’suppose that settles it, eh? I’ve gone long enough this way.”
“In what way?” asked Tig, stepping forwards.
“Look at me Tig,” he said jutting his furry arms a part, “I’m a bloody rabbit. Don’t see much of that in these parts. In most parts really, but I won’t stay it for long.” He dug his eyes into his bottle and asked without looking up, “Is that Remy girl still with us?”
“She’s down the hall with the others.”
“Then tell her… tell her that I remember.”
The bottle’s base tipped up and the liquids drained.
“Professor?” asked Tig stumbling to meet the man.
The Professor raised his white hand up, swallowed what he could in enormous gulps and toppled backwards. By the time Tig stood over him, his theory had been proven correct. The rabbit man was an orange drunk once more.
The Professor burped, “Eh? Tig, what in the hours… hic… are you doing here?” he turned dumbly to the window. “Where is here by the way? Are we… are we flying?”
“You don’t remember? You changed. Completely.”
The Professor pushed one brow down and lifted the other, making a face with his goggle-eyes, “Mate things change all the time, so who’s to say they won’t change back?”
“I wish it were so simple,” said the boy.
“Damn, Tig, have some drink, perhaps it’ll loosen some of those cogs twitching in your legs and keeping you down.” The man stumbled up and dusted himself off. “Well, wherever we are, we’re not in chains. That’s good. So best drink what needs drinking and fumble along till we get wherever needs going, eh?”
“Right,” said Tig, smiling momentarily. “Right! We’re headed to Jing Mon Ceros on the behest of Admiral Mor’de.”
“Ah, that old goot.”
“You met him?”
“Not once, but he sounds fairly of the ‘goot’ variety.”
Three knocks intruded the room and Tig turned to see Salamon, unamused and standing by the door.
He faced Tig first, not all too startled to find the boy there. “They were right. You are here,” said the captain. “Hmm, white one, you’ve changed. No matter. The way you appear now matches the cap-i-ton’s descriptions, so further inquiries will have to wait, yes. As for now, we’ll be changing ships. On your feet.”
Tig rushed to the window and brushed aside the curtains. He squinted hard. Before the trip he had been informed they’d be arriving before the next dawn, yet now he questioned that claim.
He saw black.
“Are you sure?’ he asked, glancing back.
“It is dawn is it not?” barked Salamon.
He flinched once he did. The black shifted out of view and lumbered above the clouds. It was a clockship, one the size of five galleons, maybe more, and tethered to a long iron dock that vanished under endless cloud cover, hints of a jagged crag alluding to the base of the tether nearby.
Tig could scarcely find the words, “What… what is…”
“The ship that contains the heart of a mechanized sky whale,” answered Salamon, “The first clockship, the Hourhand.”
They were ushered out like prisoners to the clank of iron under their feet. The vessel blocked the sun ahead of them and all present craned their heads to the monster. Terror, wonder and awe muddled their mechanical expressions. Had they not seen living creatures larger than it, they would have remained in disbelief.
Most knew of clockships and their current capacities. In fact the advancement of the technology was made common knowledge by the Empress’s edict. Clockships flew for no more than thirty to forty minutes, yet now, as captain Salamon explained, they knew the exception.
“Two hours,” he reported dutifully, checking his pocket watch. “Precisely the time required for our trip.”
“Why doesn’t the army know of this?” said Remy.
“Some do. But it is cap-i-ton’s prize. He need not share it lightly. Yes.”
“Travel to the sky whales has always been restricted to natural high points. Places to the magnitude of Kura or the Hourglass Mountain,” recalled Franco. “But you’re to have us believe that is capable of flying us there?”
“That is correct.”
“Hours be damned,” muttered Franco.
While the path to the ship was narrow, soldiers still found the means to squeeze past them in both directions. Cries could be heard raining down from the ship’s far railings, muted only by the steam that whistled out the many pipes jutting from ship’s backend. To his side, Tig spotted what was the tip of a high black crag with clouds misting around it. A gathering of black birds marked their informal audience, curiously cawing at the behemoth.
Then came the entrance. It was a bolt marked metal bound thing that seemed the result of a mechanized cave. Soldiers ran in and out in sporadic bursts. Muskets clanked on the backs.
“Lot of weapons for a simple trip,” remarked Gemjo. “Makes one wonder if you were going to war instead.”
Salamon eyed her sharply, “By the cap-i-ton’s will we are always on guard.”
Tig became as skeptical as the seawolf the moment he stepped in the ship. The muskets he saw was just the beginning. Directly inside stretched an open bay that seemed as large as the ship itself. Walls of black metal towered around him with barrel arches for supports. Large lamps in sets of three hung from the tops of the chamber between the arches. Soldiers gathered in ordered squares below. They were of every conceivable race, but mostly of the same masked people the prince was. A splotch of rustic manes topped the squadrons.
They made thickets with ordered walks open as clearings. Tig marched through the forest, cautiously eying the bluecoats about him. Unlike the rough navy soldiers he had seen prior, these were disciplined men. They had their sights ever forwards, postures fixed and faces expressionless.
Gemjo was right, he thought. These men were off to war. Yet war seemed unlikely. As little as Tig knew of the politics of the land, finding it boring and overcomplicated, he knew as well as any other that the up-landers would never wage war with those below. Not again.
“This way,” said Salamon directing them down between the half dozen squadrons. A zig-zagging staircase of four stories connected the main floor to the next. The thumping of the clock engine seemed to get louder as they approached it.
“Stairs,” moaned Gemjo.
Tig spied at her and found himself quickly distracted by Remy beside her, walking as stiff as ever with a bead of sweat rolling down her temple.
“Ah social anxiety,” noted Franco, sharing the same sight. “A most terrible fear. I could not imagine life with it.”
“Nor could I imagine a life being afraid of the sea,” quipped Gemjo.
“That—”said Franco with a start, pausing to straighten himself. “That, my dear Niss, is quite the common ailment and in fact affects far more than you might first assume. Why in the mainland, it is said nearly fifty perce—“ he frowned as the seawolf lowered her risen palm. “Did you just yawn at me?”
“Worse almost fell asleep,” she said, finishing that yawn.
“My fear is justified, but, as I’ve learned recently,” he started, smiling Tig’s way, “it is not something I cannot overcome. So I say to you Niss, you too can overcome your fear. Nay you will overcome it.”
Gemjo grinned dumbly at the girl and pointed at her mockingly, “Too stiff to hear this one. Oi Tig, might you still have that pen?”
“What pen?” asked Remy at last.
Tig flinched, twisting away, “Nothing. No pen. What pen?” the stairs loomed before him and he volunteered for the first step, praying the girl would not think to look where his eyes had subconsciously traveled. There were still black marks upon her pale head. Some of it had been dripping.
It did not take long for another matter to steal his attention. For every step two colossal beats played from the engine.
He glanced if only slightly as they ascended. The air was wet. He had noticed it when faced with the lines of soldiers, but here, left to think of nothing other than the steps and where they might go, he became increasingly distracted by the humidity of the place. His skin felt sticky, domes of water pooled on his irons.
He thought to ask, but why the way the others kept silent about it, he considered it common knowledge he did not yet posses, so he wavered from the subject.
“I see you’re back to normal,” spoke Franco behind him.
“Mate, now you notice… hic.” He missed a step and nearly fell over. “Stairs,” he hissed. “Bloody hate stairs.”
“And you’re drunk,” sighed Franco. “Well if anything your theory was correct, good Tiv. I apologise for my skepticism.”
Nodding at Franco, Tig counted two remaining flights and balanced his head over his shoulder as he climbed, “In all fairness, I doubted myself. I could practically hear my master back in Verace scold me as I said it.”
“He sounds quite the prude gent.”
“The prudest,” smiled Tig, facing forwards. “But he was right. Right about a lot of things.”
The last few steps vanished behind a gradual fog, which swept in through an open door at the top.
Between pistons, the cries of men and whistles to signal where they were, the clock engine ticked grandly.
The fog blinded them, but Tig guessed they had reached open air by the dim penetration of the sun and the ambience of the space.
By instinct, he looked up and saw naught but fog and sky. If the bottom was a bay for soldiers then this was another for the winds.
Salamon started forwards, and, as Tig followed the man, he noticed the outlines of small clockship caravels parked in built in dry docks.
“This ship, she can carry other ships?” asked Franco in disbelief.
“It is as…, yes,” said Salamon, “The Hourhand is both… and carrier, and… Cap-i-ton’s… current flagship.”
Tig had to focus to hear ever second word as the engine deafened him to it. Only Franco’s abnormally loud voice cut through it. Salamon was not much quieter either, had he been so, Tig would not have made out a word he said. He considered the silence of his companions then and spied at each of them. The Professor had been mumbling about bottles or the other, Gemjo’s dozing off even then, and Remy murmuring something with her eyes locked squarely ahead.
They passed under a blackened entry into a hallway to the creak of open door and the beat of the engine grew ever louder. The fog faded as the door shut behind them.
“Hours!” boomed Franco. “What is that noise!?”
Tig snickered as he thought he heard Gemjo wake for only that and mutter ‘Your Voice’. Then his attention fell back to Remy as the seawolf resumed her inexplicable sleep walk. He could not hear her, so he read her lips. She was speaking quickly, quietly, but one word became apparent.
Salamon confirmed it.
“I told… you, yes? It… is the… whale’s mechani… heart.”
Tig snapped to the end of the tunnel and he glimpsed the first hints of it. Supported on four iron columns with trusses webbing between, an amalgam of golden gears and spinning hands disturbed the air in visible pulses matching the deafening beat of the engine.
His steps slowed as he approached it. It grew in both size and volume. Salamon was explaining something as they stopped before the engine that stood as high as a man and as wide as two. Glass tubes ran behind and under the device, surging blue fluids to very pulse. Another tube near the top let in black fluids in tandem to the blue. The engine was no engine. It was a clockwork heart.
A full turn in a white coat and hat stopped before them and bowed deeply before handing them two small circular devices each. The man gestured at his ear.
Eyeing the silver devices once more, Tig fidgeted with the device up against his ear and to his surprise it slid in on its own.
The deafening pulse half vanished to a momentary whirr of the device and Tig followed suite with other ear.
Now he could hear Salamon speak in tour-like fashion, “…this heart was of the first mechanized whale we managed to harvest. Ever since, we’ve built clock engines based on this model, yes. Questions, no? Then let us be done with it.”
“Salamon,” laughed the white hat, “You are a terrible tour guide.”
“You’d serve ice-milk if it were the ‘cap-i-ton’s orders’.”
“I live to serve, yes yes.”
The man shook his head, still smiling, and bowed it politely at Tig and his companions.
“So you are the guests of honor?” he said.
“Somehow,” shrugged the boy, stealing a glance at the suddenly quiet heart.
The man’s face was a silver head apparatus. Any skin he had was missing, so only the frame and its mechanisms remained. Every movement he made, from a smile to a blink, was relayed in the spin of several gears that clicked gently. A set of spiralling worm gears let his jaw drop and rise as he spoke, while ball joints rolled above and below his sockets, letting his pearl eyes drift to the machine. “Oh that? Aye, we to found it difficult to work with considering the noise, so we devised an audio filtration device that masks the frequency. Works swellingly I think. Ah, where are my manners?” he bowed. “Reginald Rigsby, a fellow Veracian and grandstudent of Madam Kimbe.”
“You’re a… doctor?” questioned Tig.
“Mechano biologist,” he said tapping a silver circle near the base of his hat, “The second branch after you reach the thirtieth level of Kura should you choose to pursue it.”
“I must say, Regibald, I do not approve of your field,” said Franco.
The man snapped his silver fingers and pointed at Franco, “Yes I know you, the Cantinio who took a Chronodynamics degree, fourteen floors my junior. Theoretical degree that, hardly useful except in navigation. What was it they always rumored you’d say. ‘Topple the Navy’ or some such?”
Salamon flexed for his gun.
“You misunderstand,” said Franco, grinning and pushing his forehead with two of his fingers. “Twas no rumor, but fact. I, Francisco Santos Carlo--”
Tig pulled him aside, “Not here, Franco. Not in a Navy ship.”
Gemjo snorted awake, blinking their way as she saw them huddled.
Tig nudged his head at her with eyes still on Franco, “She’d beat you if she knew what you almost did.”
Gemjo frowned as she worked at equipping the noise mufflers. “Normally,” she said as she plopped in the second one, “I would know even whilst asleep if not for that sound. But yes, whatever it was, I’d beat him silly.”
“If only you could,” puffed Franco.
She made a line with her face, flipped her eyes up then down at Franco, turned, and kicked the iron wall next to her with a resounding pang.
There was dent left in it and Franco, the confident captain that he was, had been reduced to covering his crotch fearfully.
“You’re a cruel cruel girl, you know that?”
“Don’t underestimate me,” she yawned.
“Are you finished, yes?”
The three of them returned to Salamon.
“Aye,” said Tig.
Salamon took a breath, “Whatever he may have wished to topple does not concern us. Yes.”
“Oi, captain,” warned Reginald.
Salamon caught his breath and he held his head down for a moment. “Apologies,” he said, lifting his head up, “It does concern us as we are of the navy, yes yes. And will be for… the foreseeable future. If you’ll excuse me, yes?”
Reginald shook his head as Salamon made himself scarce.
“He’s a wonderful commander that man, but he has no place in politics,” said Reginald. “Right so, aside from any touring you may wish for, I’m to be your host for the remainder for this trip. Let me show you to your quarters.”
Tig raised his hand before the man made his turn, “Pardon, Mr. Rigsby,” started Tig, “But if I may, why exactly does Mor’de want us?”
“You ask this upon a the largest ship in the seas armed with an army headed to a supposedly allied state, and a ship, powered, mind you, by the very heart of the creature whose death that now allied state once went to war with us over.”
Tig smiled dumbly, “Yes?”
Reginald let out a practiced sigh, “You ask one of many questions I cannot answer. Admiral Mor’de asked for you and that is that. Had I been as zealous as my good friend, the captain, I would have implored you to consider it an honor. But I will not hide the nature of your summons. Know that when summoned by Mor’de you are just as much prisoners as you are guests. His will is absolute.”
“But why Jing Mon Ceros? Why should he want of us there? In fact, why is he there?” asked Franco.
To that, Reginald seemed genuinely surprised, “You haven’t heard?” he started, the two column slots controlling the elevation of his brows rising. “About the riots? The declarations? Times are changing, friend. The Embassy’s been sacked.”